Montgomery mom takes a poke at her peeps

By J. Freedom duLac
Wednesday, November 3, 2010; B04

Deep in the heart of suburban Maryland, where soccer coaches ban helicopter parents from practice because "the boys need to learn to self-advocate" and parents fret on neighborhood e-mail bulletin boards that their gifted and talented children might not be quite gifted and talented enough, you will find Lydia Sullivan snickering at her own people.

"Where we live is funny," says Sullivan, who has made it her hobby and business to tweak the hyper-competitive overclass, of which she is a self-mocking member.

Last year, out of her house in the Montgomery County town of Kensington, Sullivan launched a blog and clothing line called Snoburbia to comment on the absurdities of the place she calls home. Though really, it could be Anyplace, USA - so long as Anyplace has elite lacrosse teams and e-mail discussion groups loaded with bragging parents. "Everywhere there are proud overachievers," Sullivan says, "there is Snoburbia."

Snoburbia is what the 48-year-old stay-at-home mom calls her world - the high-performing public schools, the 10-year-old son who just signed up for kung fu, the man at the party dying to share that he attended Exeter.

It's pronounced "SNOB-urbia," and Sullivan is something like its Jeff Foxworthy: You know you're in Snoburbia when . . .

"People in Snoburbia want to have a dog that's different from everybody else's dog," Sullivan says. "I heard a guy say yesterday: 'Oh, you know this is a curly-haired retriever? Nobody knows that.' He sounded mildly disappointed."

Snoburbia is where graphing calculators are status symbols, families go on to swap designer baby strollers for TV sets for the au pair's room and teenagers bug their parents for extra gas money ("the Mercedes needs premium, Mom").

It's more of a state of mind than a place, says Sullivan, an amateur social anthropologist who studied English and journalism at "decidedly non-snoburban" West Virginia University. Pockets of Snoburbia are everywhere, and snoburbanites don't need to live in the actual suburbs: Look at Northwest Washington and you'll find them, she says. It's an international phenomenon, too: Sullivan first saw the word "snoburb" online, in reference to the burbs of Melbourne, Australia.

If you really wanted to place Snoburbia, though, Sullivan says you could do worse than the more affluent and advantaged parts of Montgomery: Chevy Chase, Garrett Park, Potomac, Kensington, Bethesda.

Several years ago, she noticed that "OBX" stickers had become de rigueur for snoburban family vehicles in the area. "I kept seeing those stickers everywhere, usually on a Mercedes SUV or a giant black SUV," Sullivan says one day in her home office, where she works on a Mac (official computing brand of Snoburbia, she notes), surrounded by boxes filled with T-shirts that both spoof and celebrate advanced placement classes, the Ivy League, field hockey, lacrosse and elite neighborhoods. "I thought: 'Yeah, your car is obnoxious. Wow, that's really somebody who's self-aware.' "

When she realized that OBX simply meant Outer Banks, a popular vacation spot for the mid-Atlantic's self-styled elite, Sullivan launched Snoburbia and began selling a T-shirt featuring the ubiquitous OBX crest, with one modification: It now includes the word "obnoxious."

The shirt is among Snoburbia's bestsellers, such as they are: Sullivan has sold maybe 500 shirts total since starting Snoburbia 18 months ago. "My business is a mere hobby; I haven't recouped my initial investment yet," says Sullivan, who served as publisher of Washington Monthly before moving to Kensington in 1992 to raise her family. When she's not blogging, Sullivan does freelance copy-editing and SAT tutoring - "a very snoburban thing."

Let it be known that Sullivan actually loves living in Snoburbia, lest her mocking suggest otherwise. She loves it so much that she ran for - and won - a seat on the Kensington Town Council this year.

"I'm actually proud to live here," she says. "I wouldn't want to live anywhere else."

It's just that her fellow residents of one of the nation's most affluent and well-educated counties make her laugh. She assumes that "people who read my blog are highly intelligent and can poke fun at themselves, too."

Sullivan says she has yet to hear serious complaints from friends or neighbors about her observations, which she calls "right on the line, but never mean."

Gustavo Matheus, one of Sullivan's neighbors, says she's particularly well-suited to riff on Snoburbia. "She's certainly more than a spectator; she's a participant," he says. "Yet she can step outside of it and laugh at herself and this very competitive, very self-interested society. She's a very sensible person, not pretentious, and she has a wicked sense of humor. By poking fun at it, it makes us all step back a little bit."

Nancy Mallin, a friend of Sullivan's since their sons met on a nursery school playground six years ago, says: "This is straight out of Lydia's bones. It's not any sort of affectation. She observes things in a slightly different way than everybody else, and she feels the need to skewer it. I'm not sure what she'd do if she didn't have this outlet."

Sullivan's fascination with social hierarchy and class dates to her childhood in a poor neighborhood of Huntington, W.Va., where her father was an English professor at Marshall University. She was the sixth of seven children in a family where no one felt part of an elite: Her parents didn't know what the PSAT was, let alone worry about how they could better position Sullivan for a National Merit Scholarship.

"I've studied snobbery my whole life, both as a victim of snobbery and perhaps as a snob myself," she says. "I don't like to think of myself as a snob, but I have a $600 faucet and $300 door handles."

The house she shares with her lawyer husband, John Flyger, and their four children is assessed at about $675,000, according to property records. She drives a well-worn 2003 Toyota Sienna minivan with a peeling Snoburbia sticker on the back.

Sullivan's Snoburbia reminds some readers of Stuff White People Like, a satirical blog that became a bestselling book, but she bristles at the comparison - if only because Snoburbia, she insists, is hardly an all-white enclave.

"People in Snoburbia aren't racist," she says. "They're classist. But they would never say that."

Sullivan recently blogged about race in Snoburbia, "a rare serious post," she says.

Usually, she brings the funny. "If it's not funny, people will turn it off."

So, she blogs about the Madeira School's drop-down menu of honorifics for parents, which includes "Ambassador," "General," The Honorable," "Senator" and "Secretary." She defines rules for snoburban living (bare feet required for family photos taken in August) and mentions that she heard a 15-year-old caller on NPR ("the Cliff Notes of Snoburbia") talking about a BMW she was about to inherit. "The dead giveaway was when she mentioned her pets' names: 'Sartre' and 'Nietzsche.' "

"I come across something hilarious every day in Snoburbia," Sullivan says. "It's a very funny place."

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